Captain Thomas Anstis
English Sailor & Pirate
The first mention of the name of this notorious pirate occurs in the year
1718, when we hear of him shipping himself at Providence in a sloop called the
Buck in company with five other rascals who were conspiring together to seize
the vessel and with her go "a-pyrating."
Of these five, one was Howel Davis, who was afterwards killed in an affair at
the Island of Princes; another, Denman Topping, who was killed in the taking of
a rich Portuguese ship on the coast of Brazil; a third, Walter Kennedy, was
eventually hanged at Execution Dock, while the two others, who escaped the usual
end of pirates—that is, by hanging, shooting, or drowning in saltwater or
rum—disappeared into respectable obscurity in employment of some sort in the
City of London.
This party of six conspirators was the nucleus of a very powerful combination of
pirates, which eventually came under the command of the famous Captain Roberts.
Anstis's pirate career began as did most others. They cruised about amongst the
West India Islands, seizing and plundering all merchant ships they chanced upon,
and, if we are to believe some of the stories that were circulated at the time
of their treatment of their prisoners, they appear to have been an even rougher
lot of scoundrels than was usual.
Before long they seized a very stout ship, the Morning Star, bound from Guinea
to Carolina, and fitted her up with thirty-two cannons taken from another
prize; manned her with a crew of one hundred men, and put Captain John Fenn in
command. Anstis, as the elder officer, could have had command of this newer and
larger ship, but he was so in love with his own vessel, the Good Fortune, which
was an excellent sailer, that he preferred to remain in her.
The party now had two stout ships, but, as so often happened, trouble began to
ferment amongst the crew. A large number of these had been more or less forced
to "go a-pyrating," and were anxious to avoid the consequences, so they decided
to send a round-robin—that is, a petition—signed by all with their names in a
circle so that no rogue could be held to be more prominent than any other, to
ask for the King's pardon.
This round-robin was addressed to "his most sacred Majesty George, by the Grace
of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith,"
This petition was sent to England by a merchant vessel then sailing from
Jamaica, while the crews hid their ships amongst the mangrove swamps of a small
uninhabited island off the coast of Cuba. Here they waited for nine months for
an answer to their petition to the King, living on turtle, fish, rice, and, of
course, rum ad lib. as long as it lasted.
To pass the time various diversions were instigated, particularly dancing—a
pastime in great favour amongst pirates. We have a most amusing account left us
of a mock court of justice held by them to try one another of piracy, and he who
was on one day tried as the prisoner would next day take his turn at being
This shows a grim sense of humour, as most of those who took part in these mock
trials were certain to end their careers before a real trial unless they came to
a sudden and violent end beforehand.
Here is an account of one such mock-trial as given to Captain Johnson, the
historian of the pirates, by an eyewitness:
"The Court and Criminals being both appointed, as also Council to plead, the
Judge got up in a Tree, and had a dirty Taurpaulin hung over his shoulder; this
was done by Way of Robe, with a Thrum Cap on his Head, and a large Pair of
Spectacles upon his Nose. Thus equipp'd, he settled himself in his Place; and
abundance of Officers attending him below, with Crows, Handspikes, etc., instead
of Wands, Tipstaves, and such like.... The Criminals were brought out, making a
thousand sour Faces; and one who acted as Attorney-General opened the Charge
against them; their Speeches were very laconick, and their whole Proceedings
concise. We shall give it by Way of Dialogue.
"Attor. Gen.: 'An't please your Lordship, and you Gentlemen of the Jury, here is
a Fellow before you that is a sad Dog, a sad sad Dog; and I humbly hope your
Lordship will order him to be hang'd out of the Way immediately.... He has
committed Pyracy upon the High Seas, and we shall prove, an't please your
Lordship, that this Fellow, this sad Dog before you, has escaped a thousand
Storms, nay, has got safe ashore when the Ship has been cast away, which was a
certain Sign he was not born to be drown'd; yet not having the Fear of hanging
before his Eyes, he went on robbing and ravishing Man, Woman and Child,
plundering Ships Cargoes fore and aft, burning and sinking Ship, Bark and Boat,
as if the Devil had been in him. But this is not all, my Lord, he has committed
worse Villanies than all these, for we shall prove, that he has been guilty of
drinking Small-Beer; and your Lordship knows, there never was a sober Fellow but
what was a Rogue. My Lord, I should have spoke much finer than I do now, but
that as your Lordship knows our Rum is all out, and how should a Man
speak good Law that has not drank a Dram.... However, I hope, your Lordship will
order the Fellow to be hang'd.'
"Judge: '... Hearkee me, Sirrah ... you lousy, pittiful, ill-look'd Dog; what
have you to say why you should not be tuck'd up immediately, and set a
Sun-drying like a Scare-crow?... Are you guilty, or not guilty?'
"Pris.: 'Not guilty, an't please your Worship.'
"Judge: 'Not guilty! say so again, Sirrah, and I'll have you hang'd without any
"Pris.: 'An't please your Worship's Honour, my Lord, I am as honest a poor
Fellow as ever went between Stem and Stern of a Ship, and can hand, reef, steer,
and clap two Ends of a Rope together, as well as e'er a He that ever cross'd
salt Water; but I was taken by one George Bradley' (the Name of him that sat as
Judge,) 'a notorious Pyrate, a sad Rogue as ever was unhang'd, and he forc'd me,
an't please your Honour.'
"Judge: 'Answer me, Sirrah.... How will you be try'd?'
"Pris.: 'By G—— and my Country.'
"Judge: 'The Devil you will.... Why then, Gentlemen of the Jury, I think we have
nothing to do but to proceed to Judgement.'
"Attor. Gen.: 'Right, my Lord; for if the Fellow should be suffered to speak, he
may clear himself, and that's an Affront to the Court.'
"Pris.: 'Pray, my Lord, I hope your Lordship will consider ...'
"Judge: 'Consider!... How dare you talk of considering?... Sirrah, Sirrah, I
never consider'd in all my Life.... I'll make it Treason to consider.'
"Pris.: 'But, I hope, your Lordship will hear some reason.'
"Judge: 'D'ye hear how the Scoundrel prates?... What have we to do with the
Reason?... I'd have you to know, Raskal, we don't sit here to hear Reason ... we
go according to Law.... Is our Dinner ready?'
"Attor. Gen.: 'Yes, my Lord.'
"Judge: 'Then heark'ee you Raskal at the Bar; hear me, Sirrah, hear me.... You
must suffer, for three reasons; first, because it is not fit I should sit here
as Judge, and no Body be hanged.... Secondly, you must be hanged, because you
have a damn'd hanging Look.... And thirdly, you must be hanged, because I am
hungry; for, know, Sirrah, that 'tis a Custom, that whenever the Judge's Dinner
is ready before the Tryal is over, the Prisoner is to be hanged of Course....
There's Law for you, ye Dog.... So take him away Gaoler.'"
In August, 1722, the pirates sailed out from their hiding-place and waylaid the
ship which was returning to Jamaica with the answer to the petition, but to
their disappointment heard that no notice had been taken of their round-robin by
the Government at home.
No time was lost in returning to their old ways, for the very next day both
pirate ships left their hiding-place and sailed out on the "grand account."
But now their luck deserted them, for the Morning Star was run aground on a reef
by gross neglect on the part of the officers and wrecked. Most of the crew
escaped on to an island, where Captain Anstis found them next day, and no sooner
had he taken aboard Captain Fenn, Phillips, the carpenter, and a few others,
than all of a sudden down upon them came two men-of-war, the Hector and the
Adventure, so that Anstis had barely time to cut his cables and get away to sea,
hotly pursued by the Adventure. The latter, in a stiff breeze, was slowly
gaining on the brigantine when all of a sudden the wind dropped, the
pirates got out the sweeps, and thus managed, for the time being, to escape. In
the meantime the Hector took prisoner the forty pirates remaining on the island.
Anstis soon got to work again, and captured several prizes. He then sailed to
the Island of Tobago to clean and refit his ship. Just when all the guns and
stores had been landed and the ship heeled, as ill-luck would have it, the
Winchester, man-of-war, put into the bay; and the pirates had barely time to set
their ship on fire and to escape into the woods. Anstis had by now lost all
authority over his discontented crew, and one night was shot while asleep in his
hammock along with several of his supporters within the crew.
They put the ship into Curacco, where all but those that delivered up the vessel were tried and hanged.
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